By Dejan Kovacevic, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Monday, September 26, 2011
Mike Wallace(notes) #17 of the Pittsburgh Steelers hauls in an 81-yard touchdown pass in the first half against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 25, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS — At least some of the shrapnel from the Steelers' season-opening implosion in Baltimore has begun to reassemble.
It's scattershot, but it's there.
That old defense finally found its first turnover thanks to James Harrison and Troy Polamalu, even if leaks still sprung. Ben Roethlisberger has found another notch to his throwing, even if a few of his decisions have been stupefying. And Mike Wallace has amazingly found a path to make his fantasy of 2,000 receiving yards come true.
The pieces, if not the whole, show promise. But as this fabulously flawed 23-20 victory over the Peyton-free Indianapolis Colts illustrated Sunday night, the glue has gone missing.
And that glue, from this vantage point high atop Lucas Oil Stadium, looked a lot like a running game.
Yeah, I know ... what running game?
Rashard Mendenhall carried 18 times for 37 yards, a meager 2.1 per attempt. Mewelde Moore added nine yards, Isaac Redman six, and the Steelers as a whole rushed for a whopping 67. Through three games, Mendenhall has a total of 148 yards and a single touchdown.
"It was tough sledding out there," Mendenhall told me with a slight head shake. "We're going to need to run at some point, so it's something we're going to need to work on."
Maybe it was no coincidence, but coach Mike Tomlin used the same term.
"It was tough sledding all night for the most part in that area," Tomlin said. "We've got to do better."
They most certainly do. Anyone thinking the Steelers can return to this same stadium for Super Bowl XLVI without a semblance of a running game is fooling themselves.
No, I'm not partaking in the prehistoric notion that they need to play "Steelers football," either. I know this team doesn't have a Jerome Bettis, I know the line has been awful, and I know the don't-touch-anyone NFL has become a passing league. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians has every reason to think pass first.
But here's a sample of what happens when you can't run at all: Of the Steelers' 16 third-down plays, 12 were third-and-7 or longer. Five of the latter were converted because of good passes by Roethlisberger, but five were incompletions, and two others resulted in sacks and lost fumbles that led to Indianapolis points.
The Colts knew what was coming and adjusted.
The same Colts who had allowed an average of 136 yards through their first two losses, fourth-highest in the NFL.
"It's very important that we get that running back," receiver Hines Ward said. "We're a much more balanced team when we're doing that, and it really opens up the middle of the field for me and Heath Miller to make catches, too. It helps everything. When you can't run, you get one-dimensional. But you know, it's the third week. We're still getting comfortable."
Right, but the Steelers are trying to build a champion, not just slip past last-place teams. They need to run the ball to get better at it. And they do have the main ingredient to run. Lest we forget, Mendenhall rushed for 1,273 yards last season.
"We've got to take it into the game," Mendenhall said. "I know we can run."
Mendenhall can do better, for sure. He missed his share of holes and tiptoed around others, which might explain why Tomlin had Moore out there for the winning two-minute drive.
"We were just in two-minute football," Tomlin said, dismissing that. "Of course, we've got a great deal of comfort in what Mewelde is capable of doing."
The dominant culprit here is the line. It didn't help that right tackle Marcus Gilbert and guard Doug Legursky went down with shoulder injuries, but left tackle Jonathan Scott was a revolving door, and the rest fared little better. Symbolic of the evening was a first-quarter play in which Mendenhall arrived at the line all-out, only to be flattened by Indianapolis linebacker Pat Angerer.
I don't care if Max Starks and Flozell Adams spent their summers consuming corn dogs and cola. Someone give them a call.
Funny thing is, to hear the Steelers leading up to the game, they thought they were doing mostly fine with the run. Legursky was among many who dismissed their running issues as "just a couple of execution things on the goal-line package," and Roethlisberger said he was "not concerned."
Anyone concerned now?
Running is no longer the way in the NFL, but neither is it optional.